Now BBC TV shuts out Britain’s top composer

Now BBC TV shuts out Britain’s top composer


norman lebrecht

August 28, 2014

BBC4, the minority culture channel of the national broadcaster, is relaying a delayed Proms concert tonight.

Excluded from the broadcast is Sonance Severance 2000, a work by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, who is widely regarded as the country’s most original composer.

Why take it off TV? Because the controllers of television are terrified their viewers might switch off at the sound of something unusual.

They did it before with John McLeod and provoked widespread protests, to no avail.

Bring me the head of BBC4.

(If you’re in Britain, you can watch the Birtwistle piece on the BBC iplayer here).

birtwistle adam

UPDATE: Here’s a further outcry from Susanna Eastburn, head of the compossers’ organisation, Sound and Music.


  • Ethel Whitehead says:

    Because the controllers of television are terrified their viewers might switch off at the sound of something unusual.

    They said this, or someone in authority told you they said this, or are you just making stuff up to suit your agenda?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Quit trolling the site owner. Or quit the site.

      • Ethel Whitehead says:

        No, seriously, not trolling. You have made a serious accusation, and I see nowhere in this article or in the linked piece that “the controllers of television are terrified their viewers might switch off at the sound of something unusual,” or for that matter, any other specific reason.

        Couldn’t you have telephoned or emailed the press office at BBC4 and asked, “why was this piece omitted from the telecast?” You might or might not believe the explanation they’d offer, or they might even not answer your inquiry. But surely inherent in any sort of fair journalism is the idea that if you are going to impute sinister motives to someone, he should be given an opportunity to explain himself.

        I don’t know why the BBC4 decided not to broadcast these works. You claim you do know why, but you don’t offer any evidence, just a bald statement. So what is it? Did an executive at BBC4 tell you this in confidence? Did you overhear it at a cocktail party? Did someone send you an anonymous letter? Or, as I asked before, are you just inventing a motive to suit your argument?

  • David Pickett says:

    Can you think of a better reason for the consistent exclusion of new music from BBC tv transmissions of the Proms?

  • Neil McGowan says:

    Silly old Harry, eh?

    If only he’d named the work after some right-on neo-liberal meaningless shibboleth, the Ruperts and Cressidas of Broadcasting House would have been gushing over it.

    Here are some pointers for works certain to be screened:

    # “No plastic carrier bag for me! I’ve brought my own organic jute bag with a picture of Nelson Mandela…” (mono-opera for counter-tenor, consort of viols, and ondes-martenot)

    # “Šаkkřs Ɵntnj Ǿ” – tragic cantata to verses by UN Peace Envoy Bhwento Pu

    # “The Faslane Nuclear Disaster Caused by Scottish Independence!” (a balanced view of Scottish Independence) – The BBC Singers

    # ‘Now That’s What I Call Elgar!’

    # ‘The Masque Of Orpheus In The Underworld’ an operetta by HJaacquesrrison Offenbirtwistle

  • Gary Carpenter says:

    British Rail used to schedule trains on the lines it wanted closed so that no one could make connections or started at totally inconvenient times. They then claimed there was no demand and closed the line. It almost worked with Settle/Carlisle. Same technique.

  • Graeme Hall says:

    Twice in one season for Birtwistle, you missed one I think, earlier in the season they also failed to broadcast Night’s Black Bird. Harry is twice hated by BBC TV.

  • Michael says:

    Even more frustrating is BBCTV’s attitude to the Proms in general.

    As well as broadcasting all the concerts live on radio, the BBC will also televise no less than 27 of the 76 total, but apart from the opening and last nights on BBC One/Two only one other will actually be broadcast the same evening, albeit probably on tape delay.

    For two reasons it is very odd that the BBC has decided merely to record the concerts for later TV transmission on BBC Four. First, they plan to broadcast them on evenings when there are already other parallel Proms being broadcast simultaneously on Radio 3! Last Sunday a recording of the Elgar cello concerto went out on TV simultaneously with the Dvorak cello concerto live on Radio3!

    Secondly, taking out the “live” element removes the excitement of sharing a live experience in real time, a factor which obviously Radio 3 would understand – why else broadcast the Proms live on radio? – but BBC TV obviously do not. The live broadcast of the Melbourne SO’s concert included a chuckle by a gleaming Andrew Davis and his announcement “Peter Grainger” before the encore, but the TV recording a few days later cut both the chuckle and the “Percy Grainger” announcement! How stupid!

    I can only surmise three reasons for this policy. First, neatly packaging a TV show is presumably easier for scheduling and possible overruns. Secondly, there would seem to be a shortage of suitably qualified staff outside Radio 3 to deal with live classical music broadcasts, especially the unscripted interviews and time management that Radio 3 manages so brilliantly with presenters who know what they are talking about. Thirdly, I wonder if the BBC TV has decided that the television audience for classical music is completely separate from the radio audience. The TV recordings are already being compartmentalised meaninglessly into “classical masterworks” on Thursdays and “popular classical highlights” on Fridays: most of the so-called “classical masterworks” being slotted into Thursdays could equally appear as “popular classical highlights” on Fridays and vice versa.

    Surely most people already planning to listen to a Prom on the radio would prefer to watch the televised transmission at the same time rather than a later recording date which coincides with another Prom live on the radio. This is not the first time the BBC have wasted this incredible opportunity to use the resources they are already committing to the Proms. It is probably too late to re-arrange the TV schedules and show all 27 concerts live instead of mostly later in recordings: perhaps this could change for next year’s Prom season. Or will next year’s “Last Night” also be recorded for later televising, perhaps as part of a new “British Musical Traditions” series on Sundays?

    One final point on the TV recordings: the Melbourne SO concert had an astonishing number of edit/cuts from player to section to conductor etc, all perfectly timed, and as frequent as the cuts in a pop video. I am always amazed at the technical brilliance in live (as in real-time live!!!) TV broadcasts as they cut from player to player, but I really wondered if the Melbourne SO’s editing was done live or if they just filmed as many angles as possible during the concert, took it home and then packaged it up nicely for later broadcast, editing out any slips and, of course, anything helpful such as the announcement about the encore!

    Information about any of the above from anyone who knows what’s behind these BBC policies would be very interesting!

    • Barry Peter Ould says:

      It was interesting to read your remarks about the MSO’s recent Prom concert. I too noticed that Andrew Davis’s brief comment about Grainger was omitted from the TV broadcast. However, this was not that important as the fact that a few days later the MSO gave a brilliant performance of Grainger’s ‘The Warriors’ at the Edinburgh Festival. Such a pity that it couldn’t have been included in their Prom debut as it would surely brought the house down! Alas, no Prom of it and no broadcast from the Edinburgh performance. A great pity as it was a stunning performance.

  • Michael says:

    With a very few exceptions, BBC TV is NOT broadcasting the Proms “concerts”. They are editing and packaging them up: “classical masterworks” on Thursdays and “popular classical highlights” on Fridays. However strongly fans of Birtwistle may feel about his music, Sonance Severance 2000 is hardly (yet?!) a “classical masterwork” which is why it did not fit into BBC TV’s Thursday programme, although I doubt that anyone switching on for Lutoslawksi, Stravinsky or Prokofiev would have been put off, let alone actually switched off, faced with a few minutes of Birtwistle!

    • SVM says:

      This is why we are indignant — many of us feel strongly that the BBC should be broadcasting “concerts” in their entirety. In any event, relabelling the broadcast “masterworks” or whatever does not justify the *systematic* exclusion of contemporary classical music (besides, I would contend that some of Birtwistle’s output *does* fit that label), especially when it is frequently the only facet of a given concert not to be included in the broadcast. As a bare minimum, I would like to see the BBC include a decent quantity of serious contemporary classical music (and not just crossover stuff) in its selection of “masterworks” to broadcast on television.

  • Raymond Clarke says:

    This is an inappropriate snub to a distinguished composer. Someone at the BBC probably remembered the controversy when Birtwistle’s “Panic” was played at the televised last night of the 1995 Proms and many listeners were outraged by it.

    • Neil McGowan says:

      The flag-waving leather-elbow-patch brigade who tune in for LNOTP have no interest in music anyhow 😉

    • Dave Kent says:

      The sin back in 1995 was not so much programming Panic at the LNOP but putting it in the second half, which is when the Saturday night channel-hoppers tune in for whom even the relatively accessible first-half fare is strong meat and who wouldn’t touch “elitist” (back then, anyway) BBC2 with a barge-pole.

      Any new music at LNOP is now got out of the way at the beginning; we wouldn’t want it to get in the way of Mary Poppins now, would we?

    • SVM says:

      If the BBC is subbing Birtwistle on account of a minority of hecklers deciding to disrupt ‘Panic’ in 1995, that is an infantile and cowardly editorial stance. The BBC is a public-service broadcaster, not a commercial enterprise, so exposing its audience to controversy is part of its remit. In any event, Birtwistle is not really such a controversial figure any more. I want to see more big premières such as ‘Panic’ taking place on the Last Night of the Proms: it is by far the most watched of the concerts, so, instead of shying away from exposing people to the living tradition of serious classical music, the BBC should be utilising it to showcase an ambitious, challenging new work. After all, new commissions are an integral part of Proms programming overall (with the exception of the specialist ‘new-music’ festivals, I cannot think of another British music festival that has comparable commissioning activity, even when allowing for the sheer scale of the Proms, and I strongly believe that new music should not be presented in isolation from other repertoire).

  • raykohn says:

    I would be more inclined to watch BBC TV showing works from composers we do not yet know. We already know Birtwhistle so he would not be missed.

    • Neil McGowan says:

      We already know Birtwhistle

      Not sufficiently to spell his name, though [facepalm]

    • SVM says:

      By Raykohn’s logic, I suppose the BBC4 would have to exclude all the Strauss, Beethoven, Brahms, &c., since we already know them.

      Whilst I think he makes an important point (it is true that Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle seem to enjoy a hegemony of the serious contemporary classical scene, with other composers of their generation, such as Ferneyhough, almost entirely neglected) — that we should be doing more to promote unknown composers — I think he is, at the present time, picking the wrong fight. Maybe, in a hundred years, when everyone will be doing Birtwistle all the time at the expense of 22nd-century composers, his perspective would be a more sensible one to take.

      • Neil McGowan says:

        There are strong signs to support the view (aired in posts above) that the BBC have a personal vendetta against Birtwistle in particular, and that this snub (over a three-minute work?! what?) amounts to a middle-digit from the Fat Controller. If only Harry were gay, like PMD, eh? Or not white, or not British, or from a repressed minority? That would make everything just hunky-dory with the British B*llocks Corporation.

        You make a good point about Ferneyhough (whose work I’ve programmed in Moscow festivals), but it should not become an auction. The music of one composer doesn’t become finer by belittling his contemporaries, as we all know 😉

        In fairness to the Proms, they’ve cleaned up their act quite considerably of late – by commissioning new work from British composers. I think the frustration voiced in this posting & related comments is that other powers within the Beeb seem intent on hedge-clipping the Proms to suit their Whitehall paymasters – with the creativity stamped out, and with a grand finale of tubs being thumped.

        If only there had been a British Brahms or Verdi in the C19th to revel in, eh? But (as BBC R3s loathsome “Music In Britain” series clearly illustrated) Empire Loyalist Brits in Queen Victoria’s Glorious Days preferred Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, or just about anything to avoid listening to their own composers. In fact… it was exactly like the BBC today!! As Gary Carpenter points out above. “Token provision, but shoe-horned into a Through The Night slot at 4am”.

        “Pip-Pip! Trebles all round!” (c) Lord Gnome

      • Will Duffay says:

        I think, given that late Schoenberg and Boulez and many other hardline serialist or atonal composers from 40, 50, 60+ years ago are not currently programmed much, it’s extremely unlikely Birtwistle – let along Ferneyhough, for heaven’s sake! – will be played much in the 22nd century. At not other time in music history has the contemporary or the music of the previous generation or the generation before that been disliked, ignored, left unplayed to the extent that the great swathe of modernist music from 1930 onwards has been.

        • John Borstlap says:

          A breath of common sense… finally…. all this talk about mr B being one of the figureheads of “the living tradition of serious classical music” reads like the rantings from a lunatic asylum. Postwar modernism cut itself off from whatever tradition was still living then, and created a quite independent tradition, with its own aesthetic norms which are fundamentally different from music. Not so difficult to see / hear that. For the ‘original works’ of mr B, or mr F, or any other modernist, a different festival would be more appropriate. (By the way, ‘originality’ is, in itself, not an artistic category, lunatics or criminals can be very original too.) Modernism does not belong in the proms, which is a music festival. The BBC could organise a sonic art festival alongside the proms & thus create a better context for such works.

          It has become a totally worn-out clichée to call music audience’s distaste for modernist sound-art works ‘conservative’ and ‘ignorant’. It may as well be a residu of common sense which should be applauded. Where audiences enjoy mr B together with classical music, understanding of the latter has disappeared.

          It is not Birtwistle who is currently the Grand Old Man of British music, but David Matthews, who found a way of writing new music that is original, musically expressive, brilliantly crafted and still rooted in musical traditions. For instance, his ‘Concerto in Azzurro’ leaves the Birtwistles, Ferneyhoughs and any other sonicists far behind.

          • Neil McGowan says:

            Modernism does not belong in the proms, which is a music festival

            Thanks for that wonderful remark – which is beyond all parody.

  • David Pickett says:

    I would like to know WHY the BBC spends public money commissioning new works that it is ashamed to show on television. In a truly culturally civilised society there would be questions in parliament about this. Since it is all but certain that the BBC mandarins are reading this and other complaints — see here WHY are they not contributing to the debate and explaining their programming decisions? Was this why Roger Wright called it a day on the eve of this year’s Proms?

    • Neil McGowan says:

      The very real problem here is the image of the Proms themselves, and what they mean to people generally.

      For a truly tiny number of people (those who bother to listen in, or even schlep along to the RAH, if they are able to) the Proms is a worthwhile classical music festival.

      But for the huge majority of Brits – and the BBC Senior Management – ‘the Proms’ has mentally morphed into a propaganda tool of pseudo-patriotic Victorian Values tripe of flag-waving and laurel-resting. It’s really long overdue that the “Last Night” was severed from the concert series, and taken over by some commercial impresario? It’s become a shameful travesty of its founder’s intentions, and attracts an unpleasant coterie of Geoffrey Blooms and his ilk. The LNOTP has blighted the entire image and perception of the Proms overall, and has become a rallying-ground for nutters… including nutters within government of both sides of the House, and the BBC numpties who cravenly nurture the soil on which such nationalism sets root and thrives.

      My former boss, Mark Elder, refused the LNOTP baton on one occasion, because he felt it was hideously inappropriate to be bouncing up and down with Union Jacks while British troops had been sent on another fool’s errand. My respect for him is untarnished.

  • Peter says:

    I suspect that BBC TV (and it has been reported elsewhere countless times that Radio 3 and the Proms office have no say in what is televised) regard the Proms as a ‘resource’. i.e. they come in and take what they want, and package it as they want, to fulfil whatever remit they have for arts across BBC4 and other channels.

    What is also interesting is to see very clearly how cost drives TV programming choices: Thus, of course, we have a lot of BBC orchestras since their players’ contracts include TV I believe. We don’t see the LSO, RPO or LPO, because that’s expensive. Neither do we see Leipzig or Berlin. But we do get the exotic visitors – Borusan Istanbul, China Phil, Qatar and Melbourne – all of whom were probably falling over themselves to be on TV. And we also get the NYO and West-Eastern Divan – students – probably a cheap commodity. Granted the theory has some holes, we are getting the Monteverdis on TV, and Kiss me Kate at Christmas (although that’s probably a BBC 2 light entertainment budget). But why do we not see any of the three Strauss operas or the War Requiem?

    • Neil McGowan says:

      Yes… it remains a possibility that the Beeb refused to screen Harry’s piece – because it would have involved them in having to pay an additional TV royalty to him??

      It’s astonishing how petty the BBC can be in such matters. My brother’s early music ensemble were asked to play for a BBC ‘historic drama’ series. The director saw that the sight of five blokes in period costumes playing shawms and sackbutts added some much-needed historical flavour and interest to the grimly dull film, and filmed happily away.

      Then the director was told he’d broken the rules, because the Musician’s Union would require the players to get a slightly higher fee for their performance. (Which begs the question – why were the band put into period costumes in the first place?)

      So they actually refilmed the scenes once more so that the band were never in view.

      That’s the Beeb for you!! banging head on desk

  • PEEJAY says:

    If things proceed as in previous years, there’ll a programme on BBC4 for all of the “new music”, BBC commissions and so on.

    I don’t understand the rationale behind this excising contemporary works from concerts and having them appear altogether in their own ghetto.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It may be that some insight is dawning upon the programming mind that very much new works which are considered ‘contemporary’ (i.e. that answer a ‘progressive’ aesthetic framework as developed since WW II) do not fit into a musical concert format, for the simple reason that the central performance culture – traditional music life as different from the ‘modern scene’ – is based upon a couple of fundamental dynamics of the musical material. The tradition of an art form continuously develops over time, but certain basic things remain in place, the ‘bedding’ of the flow so to speak. Are these removed, the context disappears, which is the framework that binds creation, performance and understanding together.

      There is ‘new music’ which operates on aesthetic frameworks quite different from the central performance culture, and indeed they should be presented in a different context / format. And there is ‘new music’ which perfectly blends into the central performance culture and it would be nonsensical to put them into another aesthetic framework: David Matthews, Nicolas Bacri, Alexander Smelkov, James Francis Brown, and a couple of others.

      In ‘shorthand’: the distinction between tonal and atonal offers a (generalized) indication of this difference.

      (Let’s wait for mr McGowan’s next ranting….)

      • George says:

        “Let’s wait for mr McGowan’s next ranting”

        Let’s not. I’m having too much fun reading yours, John.

  • David K says:

    One wonders if the reason is financial. TV broadcast of a contemporary piece, or even a premier costs money. Whatever Radio 3, and the BBC Proms do, BBC Four would have to pay extra for broadcast performing rights to the composer, and perhaps also the musicians. It would be interesting to see a standard BBC contract to see who pays what and when.

    • Gary Carpenter says:

      It costs no more to telecast a living composer’s work than any other composer who died within the last 70 years.

    • Barry Peter Ould says:

      You are quite correct, and I posted a similar point on a facebook posting relating to this new practice recently. As a music publisher I am quite aware that broadcast fees for performing rights on modern works would certainly be more than for out of copyright music. I am assuming that performing rights for only iplayer transmissions are less expensive but that is something I am not party to. In any case, I think the BBC pays a blanket fee to the PRS which covers all broadcasts of music. I must say however, that PRS fees for copyright works in the UK are abysmal compared with other European countries. They are certainly not something that you could earn a decent income from unless you have multiple works broadcast on a regular basis. The number of composer and publisher members earning less than £2,000.00 a year is approximately 70% with about 25% earning much less with the remaining 5% earning more than £5,000.00. These figures are not exact but it is true that a very small percntage of PRS members eann an awful lot more and we probably no who they are without naming names!

  • Gary Carpenter says:

    Works by both John Adams and Jörg Widmann were televised in full as part of standard Proms concert transmissions. So are British composers being consciously discriminated against? If so, why?

  • Gary Carpenter says:

    …and Icelandic!?
    More significantly, Adams one can understand as he is perceived as accessible but Widmann can be fairly chewy.

  • Roland Buck says:

    Who says he is Britain’s top composer? What is the basis for this assertion?